Expanded Access to Telepsychiatry

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Kaiser Permanente’s Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry program expands its facility and scope of impact. Pictured, Sameer Awsare, MD, with Kaiser Permanente therapists at the ribbon-cutting ceremony last month.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the use of video-based telepsychiatry helps meet patients’ needs for convenient, affordable, and readily accessible mental health services. Currently, more than half of U.S. hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners through virtual visits and other technology.

Mental health professionals at Kaiser Permanente Northern California are also dedicated to offering telehealth opportunities to their patients. Last month, the region’s Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Center, a regionalized hub co-designed by Kaiser Permanente leaders and therapists, expanded its facility in San Leandro to reach an even greater number of the organization’s members.

Launched in June of last year, the Telepsychiatry center now serves 11 medical centers across Northern California. The March expansion more than doubled the amount of work stations available for licensed mental health professionals — a mix of clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists — from when the program first went live. The additional staff lays the groundwork for the program to serve all medical centers across the region by 2020.

“To date, we’ve had over 12,000 telephone and video appointments with members since our opening last summer,” said Carrie Graham Lee, LCSW, MPH, Connect 2 Care director. “We are so excited to be able to provide even more care for our members seeking mental health services. We can quickly identify their needs and connect them with right level of care within our integrated system. When we get members in quickly, they keep appointments and get the care they need.”

‘I Hear Hope in Their Voices’

Connect 2 Care was started as a pilot in the Adult Mental Health Clinic at the Oakland Medical Center. Kaiser Permanente Northern California Regional Mental Health leaders worked with NUHW union therapists, mental health managers and the Patient Advisory Council to ensure patient and staff needs would be reflected in the design of the program — from hiring to training.

The program still employs the same model: To receive services through Connect 2 Care, members call their local mental health departments. Non-urgent phone or video appointments are then booked with the Connect 2 Care Telepsychiatry Center.

The licensed therapists at the Telepsychiatry Center next provide initial assessment appointments via telephone or video, depending on the member’s preference, offering early and comprehensive access to help.

“It feels great to be in a position where I can make a difference in people’s lives every day,” said Esmeralda Garibay, LCSW, a Connect 2 Care initial assessment coordinator. “One phone call can make a big difference for someone who is in emotional distress. The best calls are the ones where patients tell me they feel understood, and by the end of the call I hear hope in their voices.”

According to Lee, telepsychiatry services delivered through Connect 2 Care have been popular among members. Callers engage with therapists on a deep level, but from the privacy and comfort of their own homes, which they say adds a sense of security.

A patient who utilized mental health services for the first time through Connect 2 Care echoed this sentiment.

“This is the first time I have asked for help and actually told someone about my issues,” the member said. “I have been scared. I am glad I finally called, because I am ready to get help now. Thank you so much.”

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